Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Panthers on fire, but Raiders coming home hot

WITH three games left to play in the NRL regular season and just six points separating the sides between fourth and tenth, the run into the finals is smothered in scenario-riddled matches.

Perhaps none more so than the match-up between the Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers this Sunday at GIO Stadium.

Canberra must win every game remaining to make the 2017 Finals.

Penrith have notched half-a-dozen straight victories and are flying high again, but even more intriguingly, Canberra, who appeared destined to be 2017’s biggest flops, have found a glimmer of life again on the back of three-straight wins.

Both teams enjoyed a stellar, out-coming year in 2016, which led to the league world’s cumulative preseason prediction that they would challenge for this season’s title.

However, for indifferent reasons, neither side has kicked on from last season’s red-hot form.

Penrith began this season with just two wins from the opening nine rounds. By anyone’s assessment it was a disaster given how they had captured our attention just six months earlier.

The start might have been a shock, but their next four wins in the middle of the season would prove to be crucial. Essential, even.

They spent five games away from Pepper Stadium during that period and after losing two on the trot to the Cowboys and South Sydney, they returned to their spiritual home and haven’t lost a game since.

Six games, six wins. Five at Pepper Stadium.

Three of their best: Nathan Cleary, Josh Mansour and Reagan Campbell-Gillard.

They have the undisputed sensation of the season Nathan Cleary playing well beyond his years and in calculations for a representative call-up, and now their key stalwart Matt Moylan has returned from injury.

Under the guidance of Anthony Griffin, the play-making tutelage of club legend Greg Alexander and the behind the scenes advice of Phil Gould, Penrith could really give this competition a tilt if everything continues to fall into place like it has been.

While Penrith’s showing for the majority of this season has been mixed for a number of reasons, Canberra just haven’t clicked as they did in 2016.

They lost only Paul Vaughn and Edrick Lee in the offseason and kept virtually their entire line-up intact. They unearthed a potential franchise weapon in 18-year-old Nick Cotric and in somewhat of a surprise, handed Dave Taylor a train-and-trial contract.

Trying to work out where they’ve gone wrong this season is a tricky exercise, but identifying what went well for them in 2016 is an easy task.

The Raiders played a formidable and fear-invoking style of footy which allowed their attacking brilliance to shine as they won 13 from their last 15 games.

Comradery amongst the squad in the isolated nation’s capital under Ricky Stuart brought them together and momentum took them to within a dropped pass of the Grand Final.

Every team they faced was weary of playing the re-built Green Machine.

Even Paul Gallen was in tears of joy after the Sharks got out of GIO Stadium with a qualifying final win.

Perhaps the most endearing complement to Canberra was that only their own error prevented them from knocking off Melbourne in the preliminary final at the ‘Graveyard’ of AAMI Park.

It’s why should they win on Sunday afternoon, they must be considered a danger to any team that encounters them on their run into the finals series. That includes the Storm at AAMI Park in the final round of the season.

They might have left their run very, very late, but make no mistake, Canberra are coming home hot.

If they can build the confidence and find the spark that inspired their run last season, the Raiders are capable of beating anyone on their day.

Blake Austin found form against the Warriors last week, and will need to improve again on Sunday.

What a tantalising prospect the 2017 NRL Finals could be if the Green Machine make the cut.

It would only be a scrape-in eighth place finish, but goodness scarious, look out whoever runs fifth.
And for the Panthers, who knows what awaits for them.

A club still in a development phase, but well capable of going all the way should they play to their potential.

In last year’s semi-final Penrith went to Canberra and failed to match the Raiders, going down 22-12.

That match put them out of the finals series and they will be eager to revenge the loss in this Sunday’s blockbuster clash.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why Gus Gould must finally answer Blues SOS

Andrew Johns was peppered with questions from Paul Vautin on Wednesday night during the post-match review about coaching New South Wales, but Vautin asked the wrong man on the panel.

He should have directed the questioning at Phil Gould. 

IT'S TIME: No coach would have more influence for embattled NSW than Gould.

Johns, a more than creditable more coaching option for the Blues, refused to answer one-way or another about whether he would take on the representative role.

Citing the need to not have the pressure that coaching could bring to his life, Johns would no doubt offer an irresistible passion and thirst to overthrow the now historic Maroons side. 

Considering his lack of head-coaching experience is a valid thought line, but he’s expertise and status in the game would far outweigh any need for a resume of credentials. 

Perhaps the far-better option is to consider hauling NSW’s most experienced and successful Origin coach in the game’s history out of his Penrith seclude.

Gould has transformed the Panthers into a formidable force in the National Rugby League during his time as General Manager, both on and off the field. 

He has pushed club favourites out the door, recruited numerous players to the club, signed many of the western-Sydney league nurseries’ talents to long-term deals, constructed one of the best sport’s headquarters in Australia and enabled the complete turnaround of one the league’s most viable clubs. 

While ‘Gus’ has been busy working on his five-year plan in his office-chair and boardroom role for quite some time, along with his extensive media commitments, he has basically not been involved in coaching since his last stint with NSW ended in 2004. 

WINNER: Gould is the most successful Blues coach ever.

Now, as Laurie Daley would attest, coaching a State of Origin side is not a year-round commitment.

Yes, you have to watch players throughout the NRL season to keep track of the moments and form, but it hardly consumes your life.

As one of the best minds in Rugby League, Gould could probably pick his side off the top of his head without having watched as little as a minute of a season. 

The biggest effect Gould would have on the players of today is the size of his aura and presence.

Players would cease to talk when he walked in a room. The entire squad would respond to his status and ability as a coach. No-one would be caught putting in half-arse efforts. 

It would be no non-sense, 100 per cent commitment from Gould that would categorically bring out the best in each and every individual. 

Before NSW broke the drought in 2014, Gould sat on the channel 9 panel and was asked similar questions to Johns. He refused to step in and save the Blues.

If Andrew Johns is feeling ‘sick’ after watching the Blues lose another series, I would love to know Gus Gould’s true inner-opinion. 

Blatchy’s Blues are bleeding. The state is embarrassed. Players’ confidence has been shot.

Eleven QLD series wins from the last 12 attempts

or,

One NSW series win in the past 12 years

It’s time to answer the call, Gus.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Two coaches, two captains, one correct call.

As the start of the 2017 NRL season loomed, Stephen Kearney made a left-field call to select Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as captain of the New Zealand Warriors. 

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney & Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett.

The 23-year-old was returning from a season-ending ACL reconstruction when Kearney made the preseason selection, and was virtually a newcomer to the Warriors first-grade side – having only played seven games in 2016.

His promotion to leader of the code’s biggest underachievers and highly-maligned side, brought surprisingly little response from rugby league commentators given the context of the selection.

Simon Mannering had held the role for five years from 2010-15, before handing it over to former Melbourne Storm stalwart Ryan Hoffman in 2016.

Hoffman, having come out of the Craig Bellamy-run system at the Storm, tried with little avail to lift the standards and discipline within the heavily kiwi-fielded team.

Their disappointing end to the 2016 season – which they played without Tuivasa-Sheck – culminated in the sacking of coach Andrew McFadden. Bizarrely, he was kept on as an assistant coach to relearn the ropes under a more experienced campaigner.

So when Stephen Kearney was brought in to elicit the best from the flegding New Zealand franchise, he was faced with a number of possibilities for captain selection. Kearney himself appeared to be what the Warriors’ players have always murmured they need; someone who understands the kiwi-culture.

He was the New Zealand national-side coach when he accepted the role, sacked from the Parramatta Eels after two years in his first NRL head-coaching gig, and a former assistant coach to Craig Bellamy at the Storm and Wayne Bennett at the Broncos.

Kearney looked set to be taking over one of the most promising and exciting sides assembled in recent memory. An international spine including Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Issac Luke. Outside those four, Hoffman and Mannering remained the key veterans offering an abundance of experience and hard-working qualities.

Realistically, those six players were the ones up for selection as captain. With Foran always looking likely to spend only a year at the club, and Hoffman and Mannering having already held the role, there were three presumably left in the running.

Renowned hot-head Isaac Luke is the most-passionate Kiwi you could probably find in the national side, but his aggression can sometimes get the better of him.

That left halfback Shaun Johnson and Tuivasa-Sheck.

Johnson is the prodigiously talented half who has claimed a Golden Boot as the world’s best rugby league player, played in a grand final with the Warriors in 2011 and won his national side a Four Nations Final in 2014.

With around 120 games of NRL experience across six years, the 26-year-old halfback was situated at start of this season to be entering the peak period of his career.

He plays the main position in his side, is the Warriors highest-paid player, and has in many pundits’ eyes yet to reveal his best on a consistent basis.

The choice for Stephen Kearney should have been obvious, make Johnson captain and let the responsibility take his side to another level. It should be – his – side, as halfback and one of the most naturally-gifted players in the game, he already guides and leads the Warriors around the park.

Their game feeds and builds off Johnson.

Halfbacks Daly Cherry-Evans & Shaun Johnson.

Back in the preseason and on the other side of the ditch, rookie coach Trent Barrett was entering his second year with Manly-Warringah.

His club’s long-term captain Jamie Lyon had retired at the conclusion of 2016 and he was left with a similar choice to Kearney.

But Barrett didn’t hesitate. The choice for him, was simple. 

He handed the job to the club’s highest-paid player in Daly Cherry-Evans and put the onus on his main playmaker to take the side to the next level.

What happened was Cherry-Evans took it upon himself to lift his own personal standards, ditching an off-season to get ahead of the rest and training through the break.

Once that was achieved, the Manly half would be able to take command of – his – side and lift them to where they need to be.

The results of the Warriors and Sea Eagles situations are telling.

Image: Fox Sports

Manly sit in third position on the NRL ladder and Cherry-Evans is in career-best form. They have surprised everyone this season on the back of his performances and are in the running for a top-two finish.

The Warriors are running 10th and have been dismally poor in the majority of their 16 games this season. Johnson has yet to fire and the side are teetering on missing the finals for the sixth year in a row.

So woeful have the Warriors been, their place as a franchise within the NRL competition has even been brought into question. Possessing one of the best starting sides in the league, they have shown little fight or resolve to overcome their past failings.  

What they clearly lack is a demanding leader. A general; a ruthless commander of troops who can demand the best from his men and is in the thick of the action.

Trent Barrett went one way, Stephen Kearney went the other.

You be the judge.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Champions Get the Job Done

If anything’s to be taken out of Queensland’s triumphant win on Wednesday night by the New South Wales’ players, it’s that champions know how to get the job done. While NSW produced a 1st half of football that illuminated them as the straight-sets winner of State of Origin 2017, the Maroons did what they do best – put themselves in a position to win when it counted.

For years, Queensland have been patient during tedious games. They know that if they can be in with a shot with 20, 15 or 10 minutes to play, they’ll be able to rely on their experience, combinations and skillset to kill of the Blues.

What sets them apart however, is their will to win. They possess a determination to win every game that New South Wales have seldom been able to grasp.

WINNERS: Cameron Smith & Johnathan Thurston celebrate.

In 2014, the Blues found what Queensland have always had when they clinched their first series in a decade. Observers of game 1 this year may suggest NSW had that will to win; that togetherness; that ability to fight for every inch. But realistically, the Blues rode home on a phenomenal performance by Andrew Fifita and a dominant 80 minutes from their forward pack.   

With Mitchell Pearce seen in the sheds high-fiving his old man and celebrating a positive return to the Origin arena after leaving the field early, it’s easy to pinpoint such a moment as an indication of the Blues’ mentality they have failed to shed over the years.

This is not a Mitchell Pearce lashing, but for all intents and purposes what on earth was he celebrating? It’s a three-game series.

On Wednesday night, Queensland were gone. In the first half they were torn to shreds by a forceful Blues’ pack. While they managed to nullify Fifita’s influence, make no mistake, the Maroons were severely struggling.

Such was their disappointment and exhaustion at half-time, it was said that the mood in the dressing sheds was akin to having someone close pass-away. While Kevin Walters probably isn’t one for a rousing inspirational speech, the Maroons knew they were still close enough at 16-6 down.

Despite the long-held quartet of Smith, Cronk, Thurston and Slater being heralded as future Immortals, they were nowhere near their best during the game.

There appeared to be no fluency in their combinations, no clear guidance around the plays they procured, and no synergy amongst their communication. It could possibly be described as all four’s most-average Origin performances.

However, as champions of the game, they were still able to put their team over the line and in-front on the scoreboard. Yes, there were some beneficial and timely penalties that helped them finally find attacking position, but Queensland took the opportunities when they were there.

NSW went so far-off the beaten track in the 2nd half, you could have called for a search party.

They were able to swing the sword when it counted; hitting NSW where they weren’t expecting it.

The Blues appear to lack the genuine ability to instil the killer instinct, where Queensland are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

If you look back right through the successful Origin teams, one thing you will find is a player in the 17 who is willing to do some dirty work. Someone who doesn’t care if they’re labelled ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ in the other state.

Josh McGuire is that current player for Queensland. Willing to put on cheap-shot after cheap-shot, put his hands and knees all through the ruck, sledge opposition players and just generally run amok. Look no further than his sledge following the game towards Andrew Fifita.

It’s complete arrogance, but you know what? It seems to have worked over the years. Think Sam Thaiday, Nate Myles, Shane Webcke, Carl Webb, and Justin Hodges, even Corey Parker could be thrown into that list.

The Queensland mentality figuratively shits all over the Blues, and it’s the exact reason why they’re looking at 11 series wins from 12 attempts.

Pearce' kicking game was on-point during game 2, but he was targeted by sections of the media after the loss.

While the champions will again rise to the occasion on the hallowed Suncorp Stadium’ turf for what looks to be the farewell of an Origin era, New South Wales must adopt a siege, hate, hunt and kill approach if they’re to have any chance.

Their best hope comes from their best player in game 1 – Andrew Fifita. In an interview after the match probing about what McGuire’s sledge entailed, Fifita was already looking ahead. Speaking calmly, with focus and intent, the game-breaker signalled his devotion for revenge.

"There'll be nothing better than us going up there and taking out the series on Queensland soil," he said.

New South Wales have one of the best packs seen in years and despite dictating the yardage game, there’s no-one in there willing to get their hands dirty. 

It’s why Andrew Johns’ comments about not consistently attacking Johnathan Thurston are spot-on.

Stop playing nice and get the job done.

It’s over to you, New South Wales. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Penrith find their mojo by destroying Dogs

The illustrious move of Matt Moylan to the halves, return of experienced winger Josh Mansour and club-debut of exiled hooker Mitch Rein has helped the Panthers claim a 38-point shutout win over the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium on Sunday. 

Penrith have reinvented themselves as a club in the last half-a-decade or so, with a professionalism now oozing from their talented roster, multi-million-dollar academy and streamlined set-up of home-grown players. 

But after a scratchy first 12-rounds of the NRL season, many had wondered why the results hadn’t transferred from their break-out season of 2016. 

 

On Sunday afternoon, they showed they type of side they can be – determined, hard-edged, clinical and versatile.  

Tactical changes by Coach Anthony Griffin before the game meant skipper Matt Moylan finally started in the no. 6 jumper for the first time in his NRL career and he was pivotal in playing a steady-hand in his side’s win, yet able to maintain all of his finesse. 

Boosted by the return of evergreen Australian representative Josh Mansour, the Panthers got a jump on the Bulldogs from the get-go. 

From the opening set it was evident Penrith were at ANZ Stadium to prove something. Perhaps to themselves.

After being out-classed in the opening periods of their last few games, Penrith’s start was full of purposeful intent, with their line speed and kick-chase outstanding.  

Following two-repeat sets, Corey Harawira-Naera ensured they made use of the sustained early pressure, strolling past Moses Mbye to score the first try of the day after just four minutes. 

The Bulldogs struggled to maintain the Panthers’ intensity and not even a couple of relieving penalties could help them, with five errors leaving them with just a 50-percent completion rate midway through the first half. 

A devastating run from Josh Mansour through the middle of the field helped Penrith obtain their second try, with club-debutant Mitch Rein later crossing from dummy-half in the 22nd minute. Cleary added the extra points to seal a 10-nil lead. 

A brilliant link-up by Panthers forward’s Leilani Latu and Isaah Yeo on the left edge, put Matt Moylan across in the 29th minute, resulting in a 14-0 lead after Cleary missed the conversion. 

While Canterbury supporters could lay claim to the absence of regulars James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Brett Morris for their struggle, the day was all about Penrith. 

Waqa Blake was gifted a try from his inside back-rower Isaah Yeo in the 52ndminute and once Cleary had converted, Canterbury’s day only got worse after they kicked out on the full form the restart. 

While Penrith couldn’t capitalise straight away, in the 64th minute a deft grubber-kick from an in-field running Josh Mansour allowed Nathan Cleary to pounce on the rolling ball. From in front of the sticks, Cleary converted his own try to send Penrith out to a 26-0 lead. 

Minutes later, Mitch Rein nabbed his second-try for the day, guaranteeing there will be plenty of conversation midweek about his place in the side as part and parcel of a brilliant return performance.    

Josh Mansour capped off Penrith’s return to form with a typical acrobatic try in the 79th minute, making his comeback from a long injury lay-off, all the more sweeter.  

In what could only be described as a dreadful afternoon for Canterbury-Bankstown who will be licking their wounds after four losses on-the-trot, Penrith now look ever the daring and dangerous side of last season. 

With no players currently in the State of Origin sides, Penrith could well dominate the middle-third of the season. 

They’ll head to Carrington Park next week for their home-game clash with Canberra and then enjoy a bye. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NSW poised to take Game 1

NEW SOUTH WALES coach Laurie Daley has taken a controversial gamble on halfback Mitchell Pearce for this year’s State of Origin series, in what will be Pearce’s sixth-year in the Origin arena.

NSW will need to come together as a team if they are to overthrow QLD.

But Daley is an astute judge of footballers and has put together NSW sides that have been close to the best available during his previous four years in charge.

While some will lament the return to the dark-past with Pearce’s selection, Daley has taken a fresh approach to incorporating the premiership-winning half.

Bringing in Nathan Peats at hooker over Robbie Farah is the most obvious move in ensuring Pearce takes control of the game, along with the pairing of the former Roosters’ halves Maloney and Pearce.

As Peats is merely a serve-and-run style hooker, Pearce will be able to take control of NSW plays; guiding and pushing the side around the paddock while Maloney chimes-in with his measured, but varied ball playing.

But of Daley’s best selections is his full-frontal back five. Proven try-scorers; explosive attackers; and players who put-simply, know how to break through a defensive line.

Ferguson and Dugan linked-up well for the Kangaroos in the ANZAC Test.

Ferguson, Dugan, Tedesco, Hayne and Morris.

All the weapons in returning halfback Mitchell Pearce’s arsenal.

If this isn’t Pearce’s best chance at Origin redemption, then he will never obtain it.

If the Blues forwards – in particular Woods and Klemmer – can match it with Queensland’s pack and get NSW driving forward, whether it be into attacking position or exposing broken play, then the Fab-Five should run riot.

In 2014, when NSW last won the opening game of a series, Jarryd Hayne and Brett Morris were the only Blues to cross the chalk in a 12-8 victory at Suncorp Stadium.

Despite Cooper Cronk leaving the field early in the game with a broken arm, NSW held their defensive-end to secure a win that proved crucial in securing their first series victory in almost a decade.

Tries are hard to come by at the best of times in a defense-orientated Origin match, and the fact Hayne and Morris were able to grab tries in such a game will have been in the memory-bank of Daley and Blues’ selection advisor Peter Sterling.

The NSW Brains Trust: Sterling & Daley.

All of the Fab-Five love the big stage, with Hayne and Dugan always rising for the big occasions. Tedesco will feel blessed to leave the rabble of the Wests Tigers’ mess for a few weeks, Ferguson is in red-hot form having nabbed a hat-trick two weeks ago, and Morris is a proven performer and one of the best finishers in the game.

As long as Mitchel Pearce doesn’t try to overplay his role, the Blues are in a rare position of strength across the park and will likely penetrate Queensland’s line for more than what seems the standard two-tries.

Incredibly, the Blues’ bench will have a combative trio of Cronulla Sharks waiting for their crack at the Maroons. Known enemies of the Melbourne Storm after their last few club encounters, you get the feeling the Sharks' players will not be short on motivation.

Space-Jam, Monstar-like Andrew Fifita will look to trigger destruction midway through the first-half, along with handy back-rower Wade Graham.

While the versatile rough-Ace Jack Bird will patiently wait an opportunity to inject his skillset into the contest.

Daley’s taken a punt on some players, no doubt. But his carefully selected a line-up of players that will ensure NSW has the best team it can.

And that’s all that matters, because there is no match where a team-performance is more vital than State of Origin.

While it might be an individual who scores the winning-try or puts on the play-of-the-match, it’s everything that led up to that moment which ensures it comes off.

Everything the team has done; as a group, as a pair, as a left or right edge.

This side’s a gamble, but it’s a calculated gamble.


Blues by 10.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Raiders to be No. 1 in season’s middle third

As the NRL season begins to enter to its disjointed but highly important ‘middle-third’, a number of NRL teams will look to either capitalise on their origin-effected counterparts, or make use of their own origin-free squads.

The Raiders were arguably the best 'team' in 2016, despite no making the Grand Final

While the NRL’s perennial mid-season achievers – the New Zealand Warriors – will once again take advantage of their predominately Kiwi-based side; free of the Origin discomforts some clubs bear, the big-movers in 2017 will likely be the men from Australia’s capital.

If from round 10 to 19 is considered the middle of the season following rep-round and after the last bye, then Canberra went 6-2 last season.

But they then continued their charge to the end of the 2016 regular season with a remarkable 13 wins from their last 15 games, leaving them with an impressive 2nd place finish.

Arguably just a dropped pass away from a Grand Final last year, the Raiders have seriously become a force since Ricky Stuart returned home in 2014. While they ran 15th in his first season in charge, a 10th place finish in 2015 preceded their near unchallengeable run home last year.

However the Green Machine have experienced a mixed start to 2017, falling to four teams who finished inside the Top Eight last season. Their wins coming against battlers; the Titans, Warriors, Tigers and Eels.

If they’re serious about making a play for the title this year, they need to begin to get their act together.

Having lost their last two games in tight fashion against unheralded Manly and the mixed-bag Bulldogs, there will be no doubt Coach Ricky Stuart will be looking for a highly-dominant performance against the Newcastle Knights this Sunday at McDonald Jones Stadium.

The fiercely competitive Ricky Stuart will know Canberra must make 2017 their year.

Given hope by many at the start of the season as genuine-contenders for the Premiership, the Raiders largely enjoyed a player turnover-free off season.

Losing just regular-starters Paul Vaughan and Edrick Lee from their main 17, along with Brenko Lee and Shaun Fensom from the extended squad, it could be argued Canberra were one of the best clubs who carried consistency amongst their playing squad through to this season.

The addition of Junior Paulo midway through last season proved to be a gamble that has paid dividends, with the troubled forward making huge improvements to his game. And, as a consequence, adding another element to the Raiders’ already formidable pack.

Never a club to be short of a man-mountain in their range of forwards, Stuart added the enigmatic Dave Taylor over the off-season, who returned from the South of France after a year in the English Super League.

Taylor has played just one-game for the Raiders this season, but knowing Ricky Stuart it would be foolish to think he hasn’t added Taylor to the squad without having a plan in place.

The ‘Volcano that has never erupted’ has returned to an extended bench for this Sunday’s clash against the Knights and if he plays, it could just be the extra piece of the puzzle the Raiders have been lacking.

Why is Dave Taylor in the Lime-Green in 2017?

While things won’t be easy as 2016 for the Raiders’ run home this season, they will need to turn their historically dismal away record around in their next four out of five games outside of the ACT.

Just seven out of their last 15 games this year will be at GIO Stadium and while you would expect them to make that a fortress during the colder winter months, currently sitting in 10th place on the ladder will require a number of away wins to place them in a title-winning place at the end of the season.

With a playing-group that could be completely exempt from Origin football, Canberra look ready to make a mid-season move up the NRL ladder.

Should they do so, then perhaps their ever-improving squad can live up to its puff, learn the lessons from their Finals' knockout and make a committed crack of bringing a 4th Premiership back to the Capital.

With Stuart at the helm – who was involved in winning all three – they probably have their best chance since 1994 to take home the trophy.